Early winter, later race, smaller field: Local mushers ready for chance to shine in Kuskowim 300

man in a orange parka mushes tem of eight dogs
Fr. Alexander Larson’s chance at doing well may hinge on his ability to rein in his dogs. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

A deep purse of prize money and a fortuitous schedule change means a high percentage of local mushers — and more local rookies — will compete in this year’s Kuskokwim 300, starting Friday.

The race is being held later than usual this year: Top mushers won’t have to choose between the Bogus Creek 150 and the K300.

Board President and race founder Myron Angstman said the prize money is also attracting mushers.

“With a small field, the temptation to get in the 300 is higher because the purse money pays out to (25 teams) and there’s only 16 teams, so they’re assured of winning a decent purse if they go around the trail, no matter how long it takes them,” he said.

The top prize is $25,000, and 16th place gets $4,000.

The three local rookies competing in this year’s K300 have all been running dogs for years, but this weekend will be their first time running a 300-miler.

Angstman said there haven’t been as many local mushers in recent years because of the kind of resources it takes to run a longer race, and the monetary stakes involved. When local mushers have to pick between the K300, the Bogus Creek 150, or the 65-mile Akiak Dash, they’ll often opt for shorter races where they’ll be more competitive. 

Local mushers have been given the gift of choice this year, and they’ve also gotten more training time. Not only did winter come early this season, but the K300 is happening later.

“It was a lot more snow this year, and that’s good for training,” said Lewis Pavila of Kwethluk, one of three local rookies competing in the race.

Pavila has decades of experience — he’s a four-time Bogus Creek 150 champion — but this is his first 300-miler.

“Oh, I am nervous. I’ve been nervous for the past… since I applied for the race,” laughed Pavila.

He’s also the father of 17-year-old local wunderkind Jason Pavila. Jason’s mostly been the one running their dogs the last few years — and he’s good. He won the 2021 Season Opener and 2019 Bogus Creek.

But Pavila said his son isn’t quite ready for a 300-mile race. By running the race himself, he hopes to gain some insight to help his son train for it in the future. 

Alexander Larson, K300 rookie but lifetime musher from Napaskiak, said he’s nervous, too.

“Excited, nervous, and some days I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’” he said.

Larson said that he doesn’t expect to win, and that’s okay.

“I’m not going to be competitive to run this,” he said. “I’m just going to go around and try my best.”

He was in first place for much of the this year’s Bogus Creek 150 sled dog race, but was ultimately defeated by experienced longer-distance racers, including Pete and Ron Kaiser and race champ Richie Diehl.

Larson’s chances of doing well may hinge on his ability to rein in his dogs.

“I know when to sprint, how to sprint dogs. I did that and I won all the local races,” Larson explained. “But, you know, you gotta have patience to do long runs.”

The third local rookie, Nate DeHaan, may have the patience to go slow and steady. Why?

“Our dogs are not very fast,” DeHaan said.

He said the longer the race, the better they’ve done. His strategy is to take a lot of breaks. He’s not hoping to win, he just wants to finish, he said.

“My goal is just to get around on the course, and not necessarily very fast,” he said. “So we’ll probably be taking breaks at every checkpoint.”

None of the local rookies have ever raced longer than 150 miles, but most of them have been thinking about the K300 for a long time.

“That’s nice to see some teams that we’ve expected to take part for many years, some of them, and they’re finally in it now. And I hope they stay in in the future,” said founder Angstman.

Angstman said it was the original intention of the K300 to keep up the mushing tradition in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Since seven out of 16 competitors are local, the tradition seems to be alive and well. 

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